Wednesday, May 26, 2004

When doves die

This blog - Rafah Today - is amazing. Although it is the writings of Mohammed, a Palestinian student, clearly hurriedly typed and sent from a laptop, there is something about its clear-eyed humanity which reminds me of some of the reportage of Ryszard Kapuschinski (whose book Imperium is one of my favourites, because he knows that facts are only part of reality and are often a shield against it and that true understanding often comes slantwise - in other words, he has a poetic view of journalism). Rafar Today is the simplest and most direct kind of witnessing, and it is potent. And like Kapuschinski, Mohammed, too, notices and speaks to children: but I suspect he is not much older than my own son.

Rami Al Wawi (9) was wearing a red football shirt, his face was marked with clear sadness and worry and his eyes indicated that he hadn't slept the night before.

He sat down in the rubble of his damaged house and said he could hear the sound of his chicken. He was sure he could hear it but wasn't able to know where the sound was coming from. He kept removing piles of rubble, but could not find it, so the children began helping him. Twenty minutes later they were all able to find it ALIVE. A sad smile lit up Rami's face when he began talking to it as if he was talking to a person. He was very sad when he later found two of his doves killed in the rubble.

Not very far from Rami, a few metes away, in a neighboring house, I found an old woman with pain clearly written on her wrinkled face. She seemed exhausted, searching for something under the rubble of the house. When I asked her what she was looking for, she answered: "For the future!" For the future? I asked. She answered: "Yes I'm searching for the key of my old house, which is more important than time, this key is for my house which was occupied in 1948 and now lies in what is called Israel these days, but I will ever never throw that key because I believe the day will come when I will get to my home in our occupied land. I'm quite sure there will be a day that I will get back to my home, and if it's not me, then my grandchildren".

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Quagmire? Squagmire...

Quagmire seems too clean a word for the mess that the Bush administration has made of their attempted colonisation of Iraq. Corruption, incompetence, violence conducted with impunity, gross sexual abuse - and now the almost unbelievable possibility that the whole thing was set up by Iran to get rid of an inconvenient neighbour. Meanwhile the US administration seems to be self-imploding in intercenine warfare, with the State Department, The US Army, the CIA all at loggerheads with the brainiacs at the Pentagon: which is of course why we're hearing about a lot of this stuff.

In an essay on the cultural situation in Iraq, America's Incompetent Colonialism, historian Keith Watenpaugh, in common with General Zinni, has some unkind words about a certain lack of foresight in the "post-war" administration in Iraq:

A year ago, word began to filter out of Baghdad that in addition to the National Museum, the Iraqi National Library and Archive had also been looted, and burned, not once, but twice. Like the current scandal of systematic abuses of human rights by members of the US military, the CIA and its sub-contractors, the burning evoked a host of emotions most notably shame, revulsion and anger. The anger was primarily directed against the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense who failed to heed the near-unanimous warnings of the probability of post-war instability and the vulnerability of Iraq’s cultural heritage and take appropriate preventative measures. Their failure to fully grasp the reality of the situation in Iraq was among the earliest examples of continuing gross and criminal ineptitude of which the gruesome images from Abu Ghuraib are the most recent manifestations.

The looting of the libraries and museums was, alas, only the beginning. And our little PM is "staying the distance", apparently, although he seems about three months behind on the "current political reality", as I remember one (Labor) MP memorably saying, with admirable Hawke-era pragmatism. "The lawlessness," says Howard, "(is) not indicative of a mass uprising; electricity and power (are) at higher levels than under Saddam; municipal councils (have) been formed; schools, hospitals and health clinics (are) open; and crude oil production (is) at prewar levels." Phew, thank the Lord for that. I'm sure I don't know what all the panic in the White House is about.

But the comment which has most gobsmacked me, again from Josh Marshall's blog, is from an unnamed military intelligence officer who is now working as a security contractor in Iraq. It's a devastating indictment on the US Army: he goes further even than the British, who are openly refusing to serve under US command, despite being gagged by Blair's spinners:

About the Army - Man, it hurts my heart to write this about an institution I dearly love but this army is completely dysfunctional, angry and is near losing its honor. We are back to the Army of 1968. I knew we were finished when I had a soldier point his Squad Automatic Weapons at me and my bodyguard detail for driving down the street when he decided he would cross the street in the middle of rush hour traffic (which was moving at about 70 MPH) ... He made it clear to any and all that he was preparing to shoot drivers who did not stop for his jaunt because speeding cars are "threats."

I also once had a soldier from a squad of Florida National Guard reservists raise weapons and kick the door panel of a clearly marked CPA security vehicle (big American flag in the windshield of a $150,000 armored Land Cruiser) because they wanted us to back away from them so they could change a tire ... as far as they were concerned WE (non-soldiers) were equally the enemy as any Iraqi.

Unlike the wars of the past 20 years where the Army encouraged (needed) soldiers, NGOs, allies and civil organizations to work together to resolve matters and return to normal society, the US Forces only trust themselves here and that means they set their own limits and tolerances. Abu Ghuraib are good examples of that limit. I told a Journalist the other day that these kids here are being told that they are chasing Al Qaeda in the War on Terrorism so they think everyone at Abu Ghuraib had something to do with 9/11. So they were encouraged to make them pay. These kids thought they were going to be honored for hunting terrorists.

Cheery stuff, eh? In the meantime, I am struggling with my own "noble lie": I just heard today about Leo Strauss, the philosophical hero of the neo-cons. Hard to see Rumsfeld as a "noble liar", it's not the adjective that occurs to me: but it seems that in the strange paranoid fishtank of this kind of thinking, noble lying is in. Only, according to Shadia Drury, a leading critic of Strauss, Strauss got Plato wrong:

Strauss justifies his position by an appeal to Plato’s concept of the noble lie. But in truth, Strauss has a very impoverished conception of Plato’s noble lie. Plato thought that the noble lie is a story whose details are fictitious; but at the heart of it is a profound truth.

In the myth of metals, for example, some people have golden souls – meaning that they are more capable of resisting the temptations of power. And these morally trustworthy types are the ones who are most fit to rule. The details are fictitious, but the moral of the story is that not all human beings are morally equal.

In contrast to this reading of Plato , Strauss thinks that the superiority of the ruling philosophers is an intellectual superiority and not a moral one ( Natural Right and History , p. 151). For many commentators who (like Karl Popper) have read Plato as a totalitarian, the logical consequence is to doubt that philosophers can be trusted with political power. Those who read him this way invariably reject him. Strauss is the only interpreter who gives a sinister reading to Plato, and then celebrates him.

A story whose details are fictitious, but at whose heart is a profound truth? Hey, that's what I'm trying to do. Though Plato wanted to chuck poets out of his Republic, so I'm not barracking for him, either...

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Old stuff

Going through my files, seduced by the idle moments and endless procrastinations of writing, I found this speech I gave when asked to read an event for East Timor, shortly after that country voted for its independence from Indonesia in 1999, with horrific results. So I thought I would post it here, as the dilemmas it outlines are as current to me, five years later, as they were then.

I am honoured to be asked to read tonight. I wished to say something briefly, and then to read some of my poems.

It is well documented that the Indonesian military, especially the notorious Kopassus, has been trained at taxpayers' expense by the US, the UK and Australia, and that the arms used to quell the populations of East Timor and elsewhere in the archipelago were supplied by the armaments industries of the so-called "free world". This is only one of many instances where the rhetoric of Western Governments for human rights rings more than a little hollow. Remember how Slobodan Milosevic was an ally whom the West could, quote, "deal with"? It was the case in only November last year. Those with longer memories might remember when Saddam Hussein was a good guy.

I think most of us know that Western foreign policy has precious little to do with human rights or ideals of justice, and rather more to do with the interests of finance. Australia's relationship with Indonesia is no different. When our governments are complicit in murder, as Australia has been in East Timor, the least we can do is protest. We owe it to ourselves, to our children and, most of all, to the people who have had their hopes for justice, peace and freedom betrayed. It is impossible to maintain the fiction that what happens elsewhere has no implications for us. As the hopes of others are betrayed, so, insidiously and inevitably, are our own. Whatever the hopes of the East Timorese now help has, finally, arrived, the fact remains that it is too late for more than 200,000 of their people.

At the very least we must refuse, again and again, to be misled by the lies of politicians and the veiled interests of big business. Those interests are not the same as ours. Those interests commodify everything that is irreplacable and sell it to anyone who buys. Justice, hope, peace, freedom have become merely advertising slogans. Dissent, in such a world as ours, is almost nonsensical, so beset it is by contradictions. The most successful dissenting is commodified almost immediately, and so consciences are vaccinated in advance.

Nevertheless, I dissent.

It is difficult for me, in the face of situations like that in East Timor, not to feel art's impotence: what poem ever fed a hungry child, or housed the homeless, or staved off a gun? However, there are two things that can be said for poetry: firstly, unlike many other human activities, it causes little harm, and secondly, as a commodity it is a triumphant failure. It is still a place where the search for truthful language may exist. I present my poems humbly, as places where I am seeking truths: for it seems a little difficult, at the end of this century, to say with the inimitable confidence of a Picasso: I do not seek, I find. They are attempts to say, where silence seems impossible to maintain.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Why novelists are the most boring people on earth

I have never seen a successful dramatisation of a writer's life. That's because what writers do is really, really boring. Especially if they are writing novels. All you do is sit down and write some words. The next day you try to write some more. Some days it is like pulling teeth. Other days you can put your feet up after an hour because your fingers have been a blur over the keyboard.

I am presently a novelist, which means I am more boring than usual. (Writing poems gives you, theoretically at least, more time to be interesting in - as Petrarch says, a poem can never be judged by the amount of work put into it, since brilliant poems can be written in ten minutes and terrible poems are routinely slaved over for months...but I digress...) My news today is that I had a good day. I wrote 2000 words, my minimum total. I think they are ok. Tomorrow I will look them over again, and fix up a few commas probably, and perhaps think of some nuance that I have left out or fudged. Then I will try to write another 2000 words. And so it goes.

I am feeling a great deal of resistance towards this book at the moment. This is (I think) a good sign: it means I am scared of it, and that might mean that I am pushing in the right direction. But it makes writing like wading through rubber bands. First I have to resist all the possible distractions within my house, and then all the (worse) ones on my desktop, the books, the email, the internet. Once I have evaded all these traps, I have to force myself to write one sentence. And then another sentence. If things go ok, it begins to loosen up after a few sentences. But some days it's gritted teeth all the way.

At the moment it's sort of in between, not quite trying to dig a mine with a plastic spoon, and not quite like flying, but something rather mundanely in between. Like I said, writing is not a spectator sport.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

A question of terminology

There are, we have been reliably informed by Donald Rumsfeld, more and worse images to come of torture in Iraq prisons. According to the Independent, "They are said to include Iraqi guards raping young boys, and American soldiers having sex with a female detainee, 'acting inappropriately' with a corpse and beating an Iraqi detainee close to death."

Well, this is grim enough. But I just want to make one point. I have read maybe half a dozen reports of these alleged photos. I might have even seen some of the photographs referred to (I'm not giving a link, there's enough pornography on the net). And I do not understand why these reports refer to US soldiers "having sex" with a detainee, whereas "young boys" are "raped".

"Having sex" is such a neutral world. It implies that one might "have sex" in the same way one might "have" a chocolate, or, perhaps, eczma. It certainly implies no violence, and implies, rather, that sex is a consensual act. And I wonder: how could it be that a woman in this situation, a "detainee", a prisoner, could be engaged in a consensual act? Are all these news reports suggesting that these women consented to "have sex" with US soldiers, and to be photographed while doing so?

If sex is not consensual, then it is, by definition, rape. If it is "consensual", why not assume that the "young boys" mentioned are "having sex" as well? (Or is it that the humiliation of a man's sexuality is the only humiliation that counts? Or am I reading there the lurking homophobia which underlies all these actions, which turn so much on perception - of the tormented by themselves, by the torturers, by us? - for by this we are all made voyeurs). If the photos referred to are the same ones I saw, and the provenance of the photos I saw were perhaps a little doubtful since they were not taken in a prison, then it's rape. In these photos two different women are raped by three American soldiers in uniform. They are different from the other photographs which have said so much coverage, because you can see the faces of the "detainees". In one a woman's head is being held roughly, clearly in order to force her to oral sex, and she is obviously very distressed. She was not "having sex". She was being raped.

But I guess this is the same Orwellian world in which "liberation" means "invasion", "human resource exploitation" means "torture" and lies are the lingua franca of almost everyone in public life. But it's part of a particular kind of lie that people don't seem to get so upset about. It's the kind of lie that means the Canterbury Bulldogs can claim that the fact that the police did not have enough evidence to pursue allegations of gang rape, although police believe a rape took place, means that they have been "completely exonerated". That woman, that "slag", as she was referred to, was just "having sex" as well. The problem is, our lawmakers say, that the evidence of "having sex" is very often the same as that for rape. Unless the woman has a broken rib or two.

There's an interesting article on the pornography of war in today's Guardian, which unpicks some of the ways in which sexuality exists in the core of violence, because sexuality is at the core of our perception of ourselves. A very effective way of destroying a human being's perception of him or her self is to destroy them sexually.

Well, all this is making me feel sick, so I am swearing off reading for a while (apart from Borges' Labyrinths, which I am reading again). I am going to write.

Saturday, May 08, 2004


Back to delinquent blogging, I'm afraid, as the NOVEL takes precedence, getting there getting there - The Riddle now completed and I guess the next thing I see is proofs, The Gift now officially out in the UK, and The Crow well and truly started. Just finshed my first week on it.

This is the book where all the big battles happen. I guess the surrounding material is appropriate.

My hero is based in part on the boy in Tarkovsky's film Ivan's Childhood. That is one of the more devastating anti-war films I have seen. (Another is the anime feature Grave of Fireflies.) If I can do that in this novel I will be satisfied.

War war war words words words

I don't much like living in these times, though to be honest, I can't think of many times that would have been better. The Napoleonic Wars? Then they hadn't invented headache tablets, and people were just as savage. The 19th century? Then the evil empire was British, busy bringing civilisation to the savages and drug dealing opium in China. Have there been any days since the end of the War to end all Wars since some place on earth hasn't been enduring its own special brand of violent misery? Has there ever been a time when "our" safety and comfort hasn't depended on bunches of men going somewhere else and brutalising subject peoples? (Preferably but not exclusively of another skin colour, though that didn't hold in Ireland).

But still, and I am nowhere near any artillery, and hope fervently that I never will be, still I don't like it. It makes my mouth taste bad. I have violent dreams. But I can't stop reading about what is happening in this world, especially what is happening allegedly in my name, as a citizen of this great nation of ours, because if I can't stop it, I can at least be aware of what my personal freedom and safety (charged words, charged words) is presently costing other people. Right now close to home, not 10km from here is a "detention centre" in Maribyrnong, it means jailing children (although we prefer the word "detention") who are unfortunate enough to belong to asylum seeking families, despite a barrage of reports condemning the practice as detrimental to their physical and mental health, and which state this policy directly contravenes UN statutes on human rights and the rights of children, to which, whatever evidence to the contrary, we are a signatory. We even jail children who are alone and have no families with them.

Is this war? It seems like war to me. It mightn't have the drama and sexiness of coalition soldiers clocking them Airbs, but it exposes all the violence that racism is.

What happens to these people is horrific. Phil Ruddock, former Minister for Immigration, who oversaw the creation of the detention policy, and who is also a card carrying member of Amnesty International, easily contemplates such evidences at this (from a speech by Julian Burnside QC) as "necessary" for Australia's immigration policies.

It is hard to understand how Australia has got itself to this position. Part of the difficulty is, I think, that we lack the imagination to understand the realities of our policy of mandatory detention; and we fail to understand why it is the people seek asylum in the first place. The prevailing view in Australia seems to be that asylum seekers come here to improve their economic circumstances, and that we put them in holiday camps for a short time whilst their claims are processed. Let us consider the reality.

In late 2000 a family fled Iran. They were members of a small quasi-Christian sect which has traditionally been regarded as "unclean" by the religious majority. Their lives have traditionally been marked by persecution in every conceivable aspect. The recent history of Jews in Germany and Poland is a sufficient reminder of what happens to groups who are regarded by the majority as "unclean". The family's flight was triggered by a terrible event, the details of which are too terrible to relate at a luncheon like this. They arrived in Australia after a terrifying voyage across the sea and were locked up in Woomera. The family comprised mother and father in their thirties, and two daughters aged 7 and 10.

In Woomera, month after month, their condition deteriorated. In particular, the 10 year old girl who ceased eating, stopped engaging in self-care activities, had trouble sleeping and began scratching herself constantly. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service of South Australia learnt of the family's plight and went to examine them. They wrote a report which included the following passages:

"(She) does not eat her breakfast or other meals and throws her food in the bin. She was preoccupied constantly with death, saying 'don't bury me here in the camp, bury me back in Iran with grandfather and grandmother'.

(She) carried a cloth doll, the face of which she had coloured in blue pencil. When asked in the interview if she would like to draw a picture, she drew a picture of a bird in a cage with tears falling and a padlock on the door. She said she was the bird.

It is my professional opinion that to delay action on this matter will only result in further harm to (this child) and her family. The trauma and personal suffering already endured by them has been beyond the capacity of any human being and I foresee that this family will require intensive and ongoing therapy for some time to enable them to conciliate and recover."

Despite the urgent recommendations in that report, the family were left where they were. A further report was sent and, after weeks of delay, the family was finally sent to the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre: Melbourne's own concentration camp. When the family was moved, the South Australian authorities urged that the 10 year old daughter needed daily clinical attention. Nevertheless, for another three weeks nothing happened: no-one saw the family, no-one paid attention to the obvious psychological and medical needs of the 10 year old. Not long afterwards, on a Sunday night whilst her parents and her sister were at dinner, she hanged herself.

She did not die. When she was taken down, she tried to swallow shampoo because she had seen adults kill themselves that way in Woomera.

The family remained in immigration detention for another year. At last, after they had appealed to the full Federal Court, they were finally granted protection visas. In the meantime, they had suffered under Australia's detention system for more than two years, the entire family has been traumatised to an extent which is inconceivable for ordinary members of the Australian community and a 10 year old girl very nearly succeeded in ending her own life.

That is the reality of mandatory indefinite detention in Australia in the 21st Century. It is passing strange that a government which prides itself in family values still implements policies so harsh that they drive children to attempt suicide. Suicide amongst pre-pubescent children is almost unheard of except in Australia's detention centres.

These stories have never made the kind of scandal here that the Abu Ghraib torture photos have, and I do not understand why. Is it because of the media blackout in detention centres? Is it because there are no pictures? Another point: Australian detention centres are run by a private company.

And these are the civilised values we are attempting to forcibly export? (Because we are doing our own little bit of colonising, just look at the argument we are having about maritime boundaries with East Timor, so we can claim 90 per cent of the oil that belongs to one of the poorest countries on this planet). But damn, I forgot: we no longer are "responsible" for what happens in Iraq, although we sent Australian soldiers for the first time ever to an aggressive, pre-emptive war. Alexander Downer says we are absolved, we do not bear any responsibility any more. Thank you, Alexander. I can now sleep easy.

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